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Are clothes recyclable? Unveiling clothing recycling

In 2020, the European Union alone generated an estimated 6.95 million tons of textile waste, with 82% being post-consumer waste, and the remainder originating from manufacturing or unsold textiles [1]. Only a small fraction was reused or recycled; the majority ended up in landfills, often abroad, or incinerated.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to get any better. The consumption of clothing and footwear is expected to increase by 63% by 2030 [2]. This is known as the textile waste crisis, and it is accelerating.

Take-back or textile recycling programs might appear as convenient solutions for consumers to dispose of their unwanted clothes and textiles sustainably. Most of these programs guarantee to give them a second life through donation or recycling, often in return for an incentive to keep (over)consuming. This is unfortunately not often the case, with many of those textiles being downcycled, destroyed, lost in limbo, or shipped to Africa, as recent investigations have revealed. [3]

But what led us into this situation? How did we end up with so much waste that we don’t even know what to do with it? Part of the answer goes through answering another question: are clothes recyclable? Well, the answer is more complex than you might think.

Recycling types

Let’s first set the basis. We differentiate two types of waste in the textiles industry:

· Post-industrial textile waste: textile fabric excess generated during manufacturing processes, often called clips or scraps. This type of waste can be generated at any point of the production process and is often the "cleanest" type of textile to recycle, as it has no elements that need to be removed.

· Post-consumer textile waste: clothing and household textiles that have been worn and disposed of by the end-user. This type of feedstock is the most challenging of the two in terms of recycling.

At Recover™, we focus on post-industrial textile waste as it allows us to have a secure flow of feedstock, comply with our quality standards and requirements for raw materials. Nonetheless, we are able to recycle some post-consumer textile waste as well. Our Product Innovation team and our Sustainability team are working on optimizing the recycling of post-consumer waste to achieve optimal fiber length and increase quality.

There are two main ways to recycle any type of textiles:

· Mechanical recycling involves recovering textiles through physical methods to create new fibers or materials. This is our process at Recover™.

· Chemical recycling, on the other hand, involves a chemical process to break down textiles into their chemical components to retrieve the wanted raw material.

These two types of recycling can be applied to most fibers in the global market. The table below covers the main fibers and summarizes their respective material input, mechanical process and chemical process methods. For more information on cotton recycling, you can also consult our dedicated article: What is Recycled Cotton and Why Does it Matter?

Material input
Mechanical process
Chemical process


Any cotton-rich textile, either from post-industrial or post-consumer origins. The cotton input allowed in the textile varies depending on the process and the recycler. Although cotton is the second most used fiber in the textiles market, recycled cotton only made up 1% of global cotton production in 2022. At Recover™ we are working on scaling further our production to increase this share and close the loop on fashion.

This is the most established process. It has been used for decades in the industry and is the method we use at Recover™. The material is sorted by color and composition, cut into small pieces for processing and shredded into recycled cotton fibers using different machine units and settings depending on the recycler.

This process requires typically a high content of cotton to maintain fiber length and quality.

This process breaks down textiles into their chemical components. Cotton becomes cellulose pulp, that can be used by MMCF producers to create modal, lyocell or viscose. The final output is not considered cotton anymore. The formula varies per recycler in terms of chemicals, technology, processes and use of water.


Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), mainly

from PET plastic bottles - 99% of all recycled polyester feedstock in textiles. Although the share of recycled polyester VS virgin is higher than cotton (13.5% in 2023), it is not yet a dominant fiber-to-fiber model.

Most recycled polyester is currently produced through mechanical methods. The cleaned polyester is shredded into small flakes, which are melted and extruded to form new polyester fibers or pellets. These recycled fibers can then be spun into yarn.

The material is first depolymerized into its base chemical components, called monomers. These monomers undergo purification to remove any impurities. The monomers are then repolymerized with the help of chemical additives and then extruded into chips, which can be further processed into fiber and yarns.


Recycled wool made up around 7% of the total global wool market in 2022. Major production centers are the Italian district of Prato, several parts of China and the Indian city of Panipat. Most recyclers use post-industrial wool, although post-consumer wool can be used as an input as well.

The process is similar to cotton. The input is sorted by color, cleaned, shredded and carded to create new fiber. Recycled wool has to be blended with a carrier fiber, often virgin wool, to improve quality and durability.

Chemical recycling of wool is challenging and has not been explored as much as chemical recycling of cotton, but it is technically possible, often involving hydrolysis method.

Nylon / Polyamide

The market share of recycled nylon/polyamide is still very low due to technical challenges, limitations related to feedstock quality and availability, and investment needs. However, it is growing and reached 2% of global production in 2022. The input can be post-industrial (processing scraps, fabric cut-offs, hard polyamide waste) or post-consumer (fish nets, carpets, or other textiles).

The nylon/polyamide is first shredded into smaller pieces for suitable processing and is then melted and extruded through a spinneret to form new nylon fibers or pellets.

Very similar to polyester, nylon is first depolymerized using a chemical process that breaks down the nylon molecules into its base chemical components, called monomers. The monomers are then purified to remove impurities and are repolymerized using chemical additives.

Table 1: Types of fiber and their corresponding materials input, mechanical and chemical recycling processes [4]

The truth about clothing recycling

The recycling of post-consumer textile waste demands different prerequisites which are still challenging for the textile recycling industry today. It involves many complexities and blockers related to technology, feedstock, quality and prices often not visible to the public eyes. Here’s what you need to know:

First, there is no clear number on how many clothes are recycled back into fiber. One widely used figure is 1%, first cited by Ellen MacArthur Foundation [5].
but it is in fact a rough estimate, as stated by the NGO in their report. The truth might be below that number. The low visibility of post-consumer recycling volumes is per-se an issue. It is challenging to address the textile waste crisis without understanding the range of solutions available and their associated volumes.

One of the main blockers to post-consumer recycling is scalability. Although a lot of solutions exist to recycle clothing back into textiles, most of these solutions are not yet available on a commercial scale. At Recover™, we now have three up and running factories in Spain, Pakistan and Bangladesh and keep working to open more locations in key textile hubs. This is not the case for many other recyclers, meaning few solutions exist that are able to recycle the huge amounts of textile waste worldwide.

The second blocker is the lack of infrastructure for collection and sorting. Most recyclers have very specific needs for their feedstock and need it sorted by color, composition, avoid contaminants etc. This places a huge pressure on textile sorters, as key enablers to unlock circular fashion. Fashion for Good [6] found that, for many countries, the volume of textile waste collected per year surpassed their sorting capacity. To deal with the excess of textile waste, many countries export the waste to be sorted abroad for economic and infrastructural purposes.

The last blocker is the clothing itself. Modern clothes often contain “contaminants” such as finishes, dyestuff, prints or elastane, that can make the recycling of the item unsuitable. Clothes might also contain “disruptors”, such as labels, metal or plastic hardware or sequins, that often must be manually removed from the item. This is extremely time-consuming and a costly process overall. Many garments in the market are also made with a blend of different fibers, with polycotton being one of the most common. This makes recycling challenging if you aim to obtain high-quality material.

However, upcoming regulation might accelerate the transition of fast fashion and ultra fast fashion towards a circular model.

Upcoming legislation and Ecodesign norms:

In June 2024, the European Commission published the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) in the Official EU Journal. The ESPR provides a general framework for eco-design requirements, with specific product requirements to be set at a later stage in the delegated acts.Textile Delegated Act is currently under development and it is foreseen to be published by 2026.

Key points in the proposal include the ban on destroying unsold goods and the establishment of the Digital Product Passport. The ESPR delegated acts for textiles are supposed to include mandatory targets for recycled content and criteria to improve circularity, durability, reusability, and repairability of products. Overall, the regulation will help foster the Design for recyclability.

Design for recyclability means to design with the end of life in mind; thinking through how a product will be recycled at the end of its use. For products to be truly circular, designers need to be educated on the types of recycling available for their product categories and consider all aspects of a product: fiber and materials, dyes, finishes, trims, etc. It is important to make elements easily removable.

Additionally, the European Union is working on a revision of the Waste Framework Directive. The objectives of this revision (centered on food and textiles) are to limit waste generation, increase reuse and improve cost-efficiently the preparation for re-use and quality recycling of textiles. Members states are required to set up separate collections of textiles by January 2025. Items that are not suitable for reuse would be sorted for recycling, prioritizing fiber-to-fiber recycling instead of downcycling.

This change in nomenclature is expected to favor a circular system for textiles, with all stakeholders – brands, textile sorters, recyclers and manufacturers - working hand in hand to keep clothing and textiles out of landfills.


Every European citizen uses on average nearly 26 kg of textiles, and discards 11kg, annually [7]. Most of this waste is not correctly disposed of or sorted for post-life use and the textile waste crisis continues to accelerate.

To overcome the blockers to post-consumer recycling, the industry needs help from stakeholders at every level. At Recover™, we are actively working on scaling our solution to process as much textile waste as possible. But change can’t be achieved alone. Upcoming European legislation, such as the ESPR or the Waste Framework Directive, might influence the industry positively. Support for governments will play a huge part in creating a circular model for fashion.

Although Recover™ can produce and scale post-consumer recycling, we need a solid sorting infrastructure: qualitative, stable and price competitive. We need clothes to be designed with the end-of-life in mind, and we need brands to commit to more recycled content.

If sorting and recycling capabilities are not scaled up in Europe, there is a risk that these significant amounts of textile waste will continue to end up in incinerators or landfills.


1. European Environment Agency, Management of used and waste textiles in Europe’s circular economy (2024)

2. Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017)

3. Changing Markets Foundation, Take-Back Trickery: an investigation into clothing take-back schemes (2023)

4. Created using information from: Be sustainable, Recycled Textile Fibres and Textile Recycling (2017) and Textile Exchange, Materials Market Report (2023)

5. Ellen Macarthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017)

6. Fashion for Good, Sorting for Circularity Europe (2022)

7. European Parliament, The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographics) (2024)